Monday, June 9, 2008

La Double vie de Véronique

As chef de bureau my filmic purview has so far consisted of genre films with the exception of “The Namesake”, a drama, although one with seemingly modest aims, a chamber piece. Now, however, we’re turning the bureaucratic gaze on a film that comes stamped “Art”.

This 1991 film is by Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski. Its motto could be Hippocrates aphorism, “Ars longa, vita brevis.”

The first section of “Véronique” is suffused with beauty: the beauty of the autumn light in Poland; the beauty of Zybigniew Preisner’s music; The luminous beauty of Irène Jacob as Weronica, a young classical singer.

Weronica has a wonderful voice and is full of youthful exuberance. She also has a sense that she has a double somewhere and then knows that she does when she glimpses Véronique (also Irène Jacob) on a tourist bus. But the existence of her double is not the central focus of this section.

Weronica has a chance to make her concert debut and is determined to put all other things aside for it. She has already left her lover behind in another town but now she starts to experience cardiac chest pains. She ignores them and goes ahead with her performance. If this were a thriller, I’d worry about spoilers, but this isn’t that kind of film. Weronica collapses and dies while singing.

We see a shot looking up from her casket, presumably through a glass panel, as her family, lover and friends drop handfuls of dirt that cover the frame until it’s black. We cut to Véronique who is in bed with a young man who she has no intention of seeing again. She feels Weronika’s death and, in the next scene, quits her music lessons as if she somehow knows that her double sacrificed her life for art. She’s not going to do that. We see scenes of her with EKG printouts so we know she has heart disease also.

From this point the film wanders and becomes a bit of a beautiful mess. As chef I have nothing against messes. I regard Jean Renoir as the greatest director of all and his films are often grand messes and transcendent works of art at the same time (“la Règle de jeu”). However, my sense of plot demands more than a catalogue of the various elements in Véronique’s life. A large amount of screen time is dedicated to Véronique following clues to a puppeteer who she probably could have found in the phonebook. The film has an ambiguous ending that one could interpret as meaning that Véronique also dies, although she turned away from art.

This ending was not acceptable to Harvey “The Butcher” Weinstein who bought the American rights and demanded an unambiguous happy ending. Kieslowski complied but only for the US.

Kieslowski was an artist and had heart disease. He died on the table during open heart surgery in 1996. His “Trois coleurs” trilogy is magnificent. “La Double Vie de Véronique” is a very beautiful odd shaped object. I recommend seeing it dispite the problems I have with the second part.


¡ máirtín ! said...

I haven't seen this movie (I haven't seen most of the movies you have, Tim) but it sure sounds like a movie I would like to see. Thank you for the reminder. Can you recommend a red wine to drink while viewing?

Anonymous said...

When you finally bother to look up a strange word, it become ubiquitous. So it is with Krzystof Kieslowski! Having finally viewed "Blue" and "Red" from his trilogy, I read Ebert's review of "The Decalogue", which I received from Amazon yesterday. If it is as Ebert states, "At the end you see that the Commandments work not like science but like art; they are instructions for how to paint a worthy portrait with our lives." then I'm very sad that Kieslowski died with so much left to say.

Bureau Chief said...

I recommend Clos de la Niverdiere, Chinon, 2006 for all occasions.

The more Kieslowski films I see, the sadder I am about his death.